I was working on a different story to put out this evening but instead, during the course of my day, I came across the news that a former high-school classmate of mine has run off to Syria. I scrolled down the article of yet another collection of young people to cross the Turkish border and saw a face I recognised. It feels curious, this half-remembered person now etched forever online as a radical “Islamist” going to join a swathe of fighters in their cause to bring the glory of what they see as a true Islamic state. It is so foreign to the versions of Islam that – at least I think – we were both exposed to when we were young as the “real” Islam. I still don’t quite understand why, and that confusion is so much stronger than that I had after all the other similar articles I have read over this year.
As a friend remarked though, these things do take time. The conversion of someone’s beliefs doesn’t happen overnight – it is a slow process, and one that by its slow nature may go unnoticed, with the changes being too gradual to pick up the deadly shift in time. Perhaps they were yearning for adventure, acceptance, and the security of an authority figure? Perhaps they merely wanted to aid people in hospitals and ISIS/ISIL weren’t part of the equation when the decision was made? Perhaps everyone that goes to fight in Syria is just as inherently evil as the media makes out? We can’t look at intent and know it for certain. We just guess from the clues left behind.
Those snap judgements I can’t make, because I’m a product of an education and a time where dubious wars were waged through much of my childhood. It’s quite a general opinion that we maybe shouldn’t have gone into Iraq, and even during the lead up to the conflict in 2003 there were large-scale protests against doing so in the UK. A common refrain we hear regarding young people who go out to Syria is that they are twisted because they should know how terrible these people are. Yet over time the media itself has become know to be less trustworthy, and in many cases is an establishment cheerleader so I can certainly see how a charismatic person can point out to those open enough that perhaps the West are simply smearing what they fear rather than being impartial. I obviously think that ISIS are awful, no doubt in my mind that they are a twisted and twist a religion that I have know through my life to be a wonderful source of humanity for many people, so I still think that people aren’t forgiven for not taking a moment to properly think about what they actually do and then not head out. However part of combating threats like these is understanding where they are rooted, and in a country where we are still in a scandal over the widespread sexual abuse perpetrated and covered up by both the media and political institutions there are certainly spaces for those with their own agendas to exploit that doubt.
The trouble with ISIS is that the more we frame it as an issue of average Muslims, the more we create the sort of environment that recruiters work well in. If I feel accepted in a country it’s hard for me to take issue with it or seek a kinship outside of it – if alternatively people are blaming me for terrible things I have nothing to do with, I’ll start to doubt my country’s “kind” nature and perhaps start to doubt my country’s portrayal of those it claims are in the same group as me. Muslims are not ISIS members waiting to emerge from their sleeper positions. They’re just Muslims. Some belong to ISIS. Some occasionally drink hot chocolate with me whilst discussing the value of Beyoncé in feminism. Like, it’s a pretty broad category of thought to create a 2 dimensional caricature from.
I think the reason why I feel so odd right now is that it feels so much closer than it ever did before. Something I had been interested in academically has become flesh, and a small corner of a world I cherish has also become harder to defend from people with limited knowledge of both other cultural values and of all the small parts of my youth that they just want to see as insidious. The same people who say ‘Shari’a Law’ and fret about ‘Shari’a Courts’ not releasing that there are so many various interpretations of each of those which have altered over centuries, will now act like this person I once knew went down the only path a Muslim could go down. And I will see this again and again until I just stop falling into these discussions.